The United States is, without question, the most religious country in the so-called developed world. If the pollsters are to…
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I had a drink with a friend recently who confessed to me that he was feeling rather depressed at the moment. He’s a lawyer (and no – I am not going to make some smart-guy comment about that being the source of his depression), and one who had just won a major case. Like me he’s in his fifties and a divorced father. Unlike me he’s been through two divorces (one for me was more than enough), and nearly got married a third time, even though he felt profoundly ambivalent about the high-powered corporate executive who wanted to be his Wife Number Three.
I have known Christopher for years – and ours is the sort of friendship where confidences are exchanged (and, as such, I have changed many significant details about his life in this re-telling of our recent meeting). But what fascinates me most about his intimate life – or, at least, the parts that he reveals to me – is the way he is frequently compromising himself into a situation he knows is so wrong for him.
His second wife, Susan, was hyper-intellectual, but emotionally cold. And ‘the sex was never good’.
To which I had to ask (when he revealed this detail to me during their divorce):
“Then why did you marry her?”
Christopher often talks ruefully about lost opportunities, roads not taken, bad decisions on his part. Such as:
A woman six years ago with a non-insubstantial family fortune, a house on Cape Cod, and a real desire to be with him.
“She really was crazy about me”.
“Then what was the problem?” I asked.
“She wanted me too much”.
Laugh if you like – but one of the more intriguing aspects of the human condition is the way we all frequently run away from the prospect of happiness, and how we often dodge the thing we most want.
Because, of course, happiness disturbs us. We crave it, and simultaneously throw up so many defensive strategies against it. Because to be happy is to be…
Now therein lies a major existential question. Is happiness an actual state-of-mind, a state-of-being, or something more illusory?
A few weeks back I saw a rather disappointing production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the usually wonderful Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (well, every creative enterprise – like every working writer/director/painter/musician etc – is allowed a misstep or two). Despite the rather clunky descents into American vernacular (Even if there is an actual Russian equivalent of the expression, ‘blah, blah, blah’, it sent my literary bullshit meter into the deep red zone when uttered onstage), the play still remains one of the key works in the twentieth century theatrical canon because it speaks volumes about the tendency towards self-sabotage with we all (to one extent or another) engage, and how we create for ourselves lives that we know we don’t want, yet still talk ourselves into. Our very own cul-de-sacs, very much of our own making.
As one of the characters notes, life is struggle, and happiness is just a moment here-and-there.
Yes there is a certain truth lurking behind that statement. But concurrently I wish to posit the idea that we all have an emotional weather system that dictates so much about the way our destiny spins out. To many of us this weather system is an immovable cold front that casts gloom or despair or constant anxiety on everything connected with our sentient lives. To others it is a state of mind that cannot be altered. We stay in bad marriages, dead-end jobs, lives that have been denuded of curiosity because we believe it’s our lot, what we deserve. And so many of us have gone into therapy as a way of trying to alter its direction, to no longer be beholden to its inclement stubborness (and that’s the end of climatic metaphors for today).
So happiness might also be a form of interpretation. Then again, what in life isn’t governed by disparate perspectives? I have known friends who have endured the most crippling of tragedies and have managed to persevere – not to find ‘closure’ (a word I despise), but some sort of accommodation with the most grievous of losses. Just as I know people who have come unstuck over what to the rest of us might seem a minor setback.
But who am I to say that the trivial event that has so unsettled you is, in fact, trivial? That may be my interpretation. But it is not the interpretation. Because when it comes to the vast complexity that is the human condition, there is never one interpretation. There is just the muddle in which we all dwell.
And whether we consider the muddle to be just that – quotidian banality laced with quiet desperation – or a muddle that is bracing, engaging, worth the ongoing struggle … well, that too is interpretation… and one which so governs how we live our lives.